Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Lib Dems, the blue wall and the "Boris Johnson toxicity factor"

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"It was incredibly cringe. We all knew that," says one senior Liberal Democrat. "We all thought, this is awful, but it’s also brilliant. And it worked, right?"

Ailbhe Rea - her Twitter handle is @PronouncedAlva - reveals that the blue wall Ed Davey smashed down with his hammer five days was ordered from Grantham five days before the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

And it did work:

Overnight, the "blue wall" was cemented in the political lexicon to name and amplify an idea that had barely been acknowledged before: that the Conservatives are vulnerable in a lot of their traditional, southern seats, and vulnerable in particular to the Liberal Democrats, who are second to them in 79 of those constituencies. 

Which is encouraging, given that I blogged this back in May:

The idea of a blue wall that may crumble will appeal to the media and a Lib Dem victory in Chesham and Amersham will give that idea more credibility.

And that will gives the Tory government a headache as it is faced with defending its gains in the red wall while keeping its traditional voters in the blue wall happy.

Particularly as there is nothing in Boris Johnson's journalistic or political career to suggest that be believes in levelling up anything.

Rea, who sets a new record for the number of "senior Liberal Democrats" consulted for one article, suggests the danger the Conservatives face is actually that they are too interested in pleasing their new red wall voters:

The Conservatives are, famously, pursuing a "Red Wall" strategy, having courted and now hoping to retain voters in Labour’s traditional heartlands. This has been in the expectation that their own traditional voters will stick with them – and in 2019, they did. But the current Conservative government has little to offer these traditional Tories and much to repel them – such as planning reforms, which were a major factor in the Chesham and Amersham contest. 

"They’re leaving their flank open and we’re coming in and having a big good go," Davey told me during the campaign in Amersham. That’s before you look at the underlying demographic shifts in these seats, the gradual post-Brexit realignment of British politics, and the "Boris Johnson toxicity factor", which senior Liberal Democrats identify as one of the biggest current Conservative vulnerabilities among its traditional voters – a factor they think was masked at the last election because of the similar unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn. 

"There’s no doubt that dislike of Johnson in the seat wasn’t just an overnight thing," says a senior Liberal Democrat. "We were also getting the sense that they didn’t like him before. But they voted Tory before because of Corbyn."

"He was toxic. Maybe former Labour people like him. Maybe former Brexit people do. But a lot of traditional Tories don’t like him," they add. Those traditional voters are less keen on Johnson’s entire approach to politics: the conduct of Brexit, the proroguing of parliament, or what they see as a wider culture of impunity in his top team, exemplified by the Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock scandals. It is a private worry of plenty of Conservative MPs too. 

Maybe they will end up alienating both red and blue walls? That would be fun to watch.

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